Dan Horn has spawned an odd family.
Cassandra, his first-born, was conceived to be brash and obnoxious.
Orson, who is much older but came second (true story), was created to be grumpy and curmudgeonly.
Little Gary, a wooden-headed sort, is a self-parody of Horn.
Hardly the bunch Mr. Brady would assemble, but they all look up to Horn and turn to him for guidance. And in doing so, they have managed to earn a good living for the Arizona resident, who responds by stuffing them in trunks and hiring them out across the country, including a stop at the Brea Improv through Sunday.
"Cassandra was just a puppet I made to be the spunky, saucy, smart-aleck character," the stand-up ventriloquist said from his home in Chandler, near Phoenix, while trying to feed his infant son as his wife and daughter, 7, ran errands. "She was the Charlie McCarthy prototype, brash and obnoxious."
Orson's origins were more rooted in reality, and it didn't take him long to supplant Cassandra as the favored child.
"We had lots of aunts and uncles in our family, and I put Orson together to entertain family," continued Horn, who chose the name Orson because it wasn't a puppet-y name. "At the same time, I was doing open-mike nights with Cassandra, and someone suggested doing Orson, too. I said no, but I got bored after a few months with just Cassandra, so I did it to see."
The results were impressive. It seems everyone had a relative or a friend that was crusty on the outside, soft on the inside.
"There seemed to be a lot more that could be done with an elderly puppet," said Horn, 35. "I could find more material with a dirty old man."
Soon Orson was opening the show. More than 15 years later, Orson is still going strong.
"I think that's mainly because of the difference of the character," Horn said, referring to his interactive style and the soft-sculptured, cloth characters he uses as opposed to carved, wooden dummies. "Everyone had Charlie McCarthy for so long. Orson goes over well because people haven't seen him so much. I was 19 when he was originated. He has a background. I react to him as if he were a real person."
Often on stage, when the puppet talks, the ventriloquist takes himself out of the show. He's more of a straight man. That's where Horn sets himself apart. He laughs at his puppets. He goads them.
"I have to react when Orson talks. That was something I consciously worked on, creating two personas."
That's where Little Gary fits in. He's the wooden dummy Orson uses to do traditional ventriloquism to parody Horn.
"Everything he does is the ventriloquism stereotype. Hopefully, what I do is get away from that."
A typical bit between Orson and Gary goes like this:
Orson: "What's your favorite class in school?"
Gary: "Wood shop."
Orson: "What are you building?"
Gary: "A date."
Horn's other characters include E.P. (short for extra puppet) and Polly Ester (a matronly type). And audience members should be forewarned: Horn's show includes an often-hilarious portion in which he brings a volunteer on stage and attaches oversized marionette sticks to his or her wrists to manipulate the arms as Horn provides the voice. Think of Mr. T's voice coming from a woman.
Horn started throwing his voice 30 years ago in Phoenix when he 5. Today, he's on the road about 36 weeks a year, performing at comedy clubs, casinos, colleges and conventions.
He has worked with Jay Leno, Howie Mandel and Rita Rudner. He has also entertained fans on Showtime, "Evening at the Improv" and "Comic Strip Live."
He's a hit with his peers, too. Last July, he was voted 1993-94 ventriloquist of the year at the annual International Ventriloquist Convention at Fort Mitchell, Ky.
But none of that guarantees Horn recognition.
At the convention, he was asked, "Can I get an autograph, Jeff?" A humbling request, given that Jeff is Jeff Dunham, Horn's competition.
"Actually, Jeff and I get along very well, and the more Jeff does, it's good for me. Because if people think I'm him, I get more exposure," Horn said, laughing.
And as a proud parent, he can afford to laugh these days. His act, sometimes racy but always entertaining, is in demand. His peers respect him. His kids respond to him.
But above all, they always say what he tells them to.
Who: Comedian/ventriloquist Dan Horn.
When: Today, Feb. 10, at 8:30 p.m.; Friday, Feb. 11, at 8:30 and 10:30 p.m.; Saturday, Feb. 12, at 8 and 10:30 p.m., and Sunday, Feb. 13, at 8 p.m..
Where: The Improv, 945 E. Birch St., Brea.
Whereabouts: Take the Lambert Road exit from the Orange (57) Freeway and go west. Turn left onto State College Boulevard and right onto Birch Street. The Improv is on the right in the Brea Marketplace, across from the Brea Mall.
Wherewithal: $7 to $10.
Where to call: (714) 529-7878.